I have lived in 4 different countries with my husband and our 3 children over a period of 23 years now.
Each time we enjoyed the process of belonging and connecting with where we were. But why is it so important to help our kids create and feel this sense of belonging with where they are, right now? Well, mainly because otherwise they can feel disconnected from where they are. they are just there, floating, with little purpose. And loss or lack of belonging can be connected to stress, illness and depression.
A sense of belonging is crucial to our children’s satisfaction in life, their happiness, and their physical and mental health, including their confidence and self-esteem. They just feel so much better in their body when their mind is content. It gives them a sense of purpose and meaning in their everyday life and with what they are doing. But also, it makes your experience living overseas so much better, calmer and easy.
How to belong in a new culture:
When you move somewhere new with your family you are automatically ‘forced’ to adapt. It is something we do automatically as soon as we enter a new place; we are social beings and have the need to find our group/tribe, socialise and connect. It’s through belonging to these groups that we start feeling a sense of connection, of ‘home’, friendship, inclusion and maybe even love. Belonging is when your family is able to adapt to the core beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that make up your new place. But go deeper and help them to understand what is going on around them, not just the language but the habits and traditions as well.
Do your research together:
When I support families moving overseas, I often suggest that they sit down with their family and do some cultural research together. This can be done BEFORE they actually go to their new home but also when they are there:
• Religion(s): what do they believe in and worship, where do they worship (church, temples etc.), how many Gods do they have and what are they called etc.?
• What languages do the country have, is it one or several languages? What will you attempt to speak? When we moved to China we wanted to try to speak Mandarin, but there are 13 spoken languages in China. When we moved to Belgium we tried French, even though they also speak Dutch. You might even like to try listening to some music or the radio in that language to get your ears used to it.
• Cultural night: you can have a family cultural evening where you cook some ‘local’ food, set the table with the local colours, add a local flag and listen to some local music. Why not invite friends over and enjoy an evening together. In China my kids loved to make Peking In Belgium we made ‘moules et frites’.
• Try to explore what special traditions they have and special celebration days. In China we celebrated ‘Chinese New Year’. In India you can celebrate ‘Diwali’, the festival of lights or ‘Holi’ and so on.
Once you and your family have developed more cultural knowledge you will feel that you start to understand what is going on around you. You don’t have to be surprised when some ‘odd’ food arrives, or one day everyone starts dancing in the streets or a sound from a temple rings out at midday. You can say, ‘I know what that is, or what it is about’, and you can share the experience with the locals around you. Your family will be less likely to feel like outsiders when you know the core beliefs, habits, and what drives people around you. And more likely to accept, enjoy it and maybe even join in – belong.
Understand, don’t judge:
When you move with your family to a new place you will be exposed to new things that you might think are weird. But don’t judge what you see based on your own culture. STOP and reflect with your kids on WHY they do what they do. What is the meaning behind it? When we lived in China I remember my kids were horrified that the adult Chinese would wear PJs in public: ‘how can they?’, ‘they are so lazy they don’t even want to change’, ‘they are dirty’… AND the men didn’t even bother to cut their nails – they let them grow long – yuk! Hold on kids, let’s explore WHY they do it, I am sure there is a meaning to it all. And there was. Chinese men grow their fingernails long to appear “rich”, as someone with long fingernails clearly isn’t working in the rice paddies or doing any other sort of manual labour. And it’s a status symbol to wear pyjamas in public. It says, ‘Look at me, I am so well off that I don’t need to work. I don’t need a suit or anything fancy – I can just stroll around in my PJs enjoying life.’ Suddenly my kids looked at them in a different light, because they understood why they did what they did. This ‘understanding’ creates a sense of bonding and belonging with the people around them. ‘Now that I understand why people around me do what they do I feel more connected to them, I might even try it myself’. And yes, my kids did want to wear PJs for a full weekend – and why not, it was ‘Shūfú’ meaning comfy.
Be curious and open minded:
You and your family will see, hear and smell new things and that is the beauty of living overseas with a new culture. And teach your kids that it is OK to ask questions, explore and stay open minded. Most people don’t mind you asking: Why do you do that? What is that? How do you say it? What does that mean? etc. I remember my kids also being so puzzled by the ‘weird’ looking things that the Chinese did at the park. Where they walked around and made slow movements and tapped themselves. Next time we were in the park we met a young couple and asked what that was. They loved to explain it in detail to us, they even made us try it! Walking slowly backwards is good for balance and coordination, small jumps are good for joint mobility, self-tapping is good for blood flow and relieves stiffness. It is something we really took to – it is relaxing to do when getting up or waiting for the bus. Although it does look a bit out of place in the middle of London, but maybe people around are curious too! So, encourage your kids to explore, ask questions and stay open minded to what is around them. This way they will not feel out of place, confused or maybe even scared when they are confronted with new cultural habits as they know they can ask and learn and maybe even be part of it. This too creates a sense of belonging, we break down the barriers between ‘them and us’. We invite ourselves into their beautiful world, step in and become part of it. And of course they will benefit hugely from this amazing opportunity to see the world in a more global and open minded way.
Find your tribe:
It is OK not to go totally native as long as we tune in to, understand, stay curious and respect the country and culture we have been allowed to share with them. But I also believe that it is important that our kids find their kind of friends. Where they don’t have to think about anything but just enjoying time and having fun together. And maybe that’s with the local people, maybe your child’s language is good enough to join a local football, ballet or riding club – amazing. If not, find your child’s tribe, where they can chill and be themselves. In China we found an English speaking riding club which my daughter loved. Yes there were locals too but my daughter had friends there where she could freely be herself and speak her language. My boys went to other clubs with activities that they liked and where they could meet friends and hang out as normal kids. Belong to your own culture: But it is not only belonging to where you are living now with your kids. It is also supporting them to retain a sense of belonging to their own culture at home, their tribe, your tribe. Most of us will at some stage move on to another country or go home to our own one. We want our kids to be able to ‘glide’ into a new place with our family without having to try too hard to fit in again. Or when we are home for holiday they can enjoy it without feeling like a stranger. So how can we, as an expat family, work towards belonging somewhere new. While still remaining who we are, with our own culture and family values. Still feel a sense of belonging to the new country without having to give up who we were when we arrived.
How to still belong to your own culture:
• Speak from your heart: What does your heart speak? Speak to the kids. I know it can be tempting to speak to our kids in another language. For example, if your kids go to an English school and you speak French for instance, and maybe your partner speaks a third language. But you can help them to feel a continued sense of belonging to your culture and home. By staying connected to the language and accent. It might be hard work now, but later on believe me they WILL thank you. And your family will find it easier to connect with your kids once you’re back home, which instils a deeper sense of belonging. I have always only spoken Danish to my kids, even though they have never lived there. This means that when we go ‘home’ to Denmark they connect with my family and their age group straight away. CLICK here to read more about ‘Raising a multilingual family’.
• Celebrate your traditions and special days: It is equally important that you help your kids remember your special days and traditions. Invite their friends over and celebrate together and let your kids show them their special traditions and feel proud of it. We have always celebrated ‘Fastelavn’, a Danish tradition, and St. Patrick’s Day as my husband is Irish. We even had two ‘Christmas Days’ because Denmark celebrates Christmas on the 24th and the UK on the 25th – how great is that? Again, once our kids are back in either country they know about it all and can join in and feel connected, not out of place and confused.
• Stay connected with family and friends: It is so important that they still feel that they belong to their people at home. Organise weekly online ‘playdates’, with your child’s friends. Encourage them to write letters, send parcels to their friends and family, make sure the connections stay strong. So when you go back home they will find it easier to feel an instant belonging because it ‘never felt like they were away’.
• Tune into what happens at home in their world – TV programmes, music, etc.: You are beginning to get the point by now, it is all about familiarity. Once our kids know what is going on in the country or culture they are in they will feel relaxed, free to join in and that they ‘belong here’ – confident. But our kids grow up so try to stay tuned into what happens at ‘home’. What TV programmes are kids the same age as yours watching there now? Watch them What music are they into? Listen to it together. I don’t think I have to explain why!
I hope you have enjoyed this blog and that you find that you have some tools now to support your child to create a sense of belonging no matter where in the world they are. They, you, and your family will embrace this amazing opportunity and grow stronger and more connected together.
Mette Theilmann – part of the Parenting Community team